Intersex – what do we mean by that?

“All people are different.”

(Translated from: Lila – Oder was ist Intersexualität? [Purple – Or what is intersex?] 2009: 4)

Many terms are available to describe variations in physical sex characteristics and development. The term intersexuality was coined by the biologist Goldschmidt (1926) and is still used today. The Latin prefix inter- expresses the image of “being in between” or being in an interspace. This term later gradually replaced the term hermaphrodite, which was commonly used in English until the 1940s to describe a range of ambiguous traits. Meanwhile, the term intersex is generally preferred to intersexuality to describe people with intersex variations or traits.

Since the introduction of a new medical classification and the abbreviation DSD (for disorders of sex development) at the International Intersex Consensus Conference in Chicago in 2005, the discussion about the appropriate nomenclature and designation of intersex body diversity has continued. The sociologist and lived-experience expert Georgiann Davis vividly illustrates the debate, and especially how it is conducted in North America, in her book Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis.

In the meantime, many researchers and practitioners, also those in the field of medicine, have distanced themselves from the original “DSD” designation. The abbreviation is increasingly being given new meaning and can also be read as differences or divergences in sex development or as diverse sex development. Dividing DSD into three main groups according to the underlying genetic sex (46,XX or 46,XY karyotype or mosaic forms) has at the same time led to more comprehensibility and has also made it possible to classify such intersex forms that were previously difficult to diagnose.

We understand intersex as a generic term that encompasses numerous and very different congenital physical manifestations. In intersex forms such as androgen resistance or androgen insensitivity, gonadal dysgenesis or so-called disorders of androgen biosynthesis, the sex characteristics of a person do not all correspond to one or the same sex. Also, the adrenogenital syndrome (AGS) and the Klinefelter and Turner syndromes are counted by some lived-experience experts as intersex conditions, and in the medical field as DSD or variations in physical sex development.